Cornelia Parker at Tate Britain, William Kentridge, Royal Academy or Arts, London
Lately, I’ve been thinking about learning.
During the pandemic, I found that the absence of the exhibitions that sustain me and that I write about in these blogs was a woeful absence in my life. I am a cannibal and a thief when it comes to going to shows. What can I steal? What can I learn? During the lockdowns, when the museums and galleries were shut, I was thrown back against myself. As a result, I learned a lot. My work changed. I changed. We all changed.
But oh, it’s good to be out there again.
Last night I heard a story about learning. A woman who was about to marry a much older man, wanted to introduce her future husband to her elderly grandfather who highly disapproved of the match. He could not countenance her marrying a much older man, even though this man was a very famous and successful pioneer of artificial intelligence. Her fiancé brought a gift for her grandfather to this inauspicious meeting. Not wine, not flowers, nor chocolate, but three red balls. Whatever for, asked the elderly man. Obviously to juggle. But I can’t juggle he said. You can learn, was the reply.
The marriage went ahead with the grandfather’s blessing.
I learned a lot from these two shows, and it was pure happenstance that I saw them on the same day. Both are intensely immersive, but they are very different from each other and curiously similar. Their creators share a critical and political approach to making art and are educational in the very best sense of that word. Neither show is pretentious or overly intellectual. The accompanying texts on the gallery walls are essential reading and though I am very stubborn and opinionated, often finding that captions on museum walls tell the viewers more about the curators than the artists they attempt to elucidate, here at Tate and the Academy they are helpful. They are not the coercive, tendentious, prescriptive texts that often can be so infuriating.
Cornelia Parker at Tate Britain writes very well and amusingly about her work. She is most famous for her installation work. Thirty Pieces of Silver has a restrained compressed (!) elegance and biblical resonance being the amount of silver Judas received for betraying Christ. These old wedding presents, junk shop and car boot finds have been flattened under a steam roller and strung on thin wires to shiver a few inches off the gallery floor. They communicate a sense of time and lived history that is poignant and elegiac. Her famously exploded shed Cold Dark Matter, and Perpetual Canon, in which a sad, mute orchestra of flattened musical instruments hangs in a dreamy quiet dark gallery “frozen breathlessly in limbo” are peopled by their shadows and the shadows of their absent owners.
The revelation to me is her films. Her film FLAG, made especially for this show, was shot in a Swansea flag factory only a few months ago. In the wake of the Queen’s death, a film about the intricate sewing of the Union Jack is a powerful interrogation of patriotism and monarchy. The symbolism of the flag is subsumed in an intricate film about its careful making. Parker is fascinated by the process of making, and another work, Magna Carta (an embroidery), is a collaboration between 250 stitchers from pop stars to journalists to moguls of social media. Parker is the country’s first Election artist and her poetic and eerie film, Left, Right and Centre was shot at night in the empty House of Commons. A drone was used, whose down draft animates a fluttering cascade of newspapers onto the dispatch box and the famous green benches. It is a flip show of a year’s headlines. Poetic, hypnotic, mysterious and heart stopping. I was transfixed and watched this film twice. Certainly, this film has a social meaning – the ghostly presence of past debates in the chamber is all too obvious – but it transcends mere party politics.
William Kentridge makes films too, and his films are like huge versions of those flip books we made as children to animate our drawings. He draws – in both senses of the word – on the very origins of film. These are like story boards, narratives which animate his political way of seeing and being. Like Parker, he is a protean artist who lightly wears many hats. He is dauntingly prolific. He creates opera, sculpture, installation, tapestry, prints, music and theatre, and he is the foremost draughtsman of our time. His huge charcoal drawings, sometimes drawn directly on the walls of this august building, have an angry fizz and a ghostly expressiveness worthy of his predecessors. In his gestural expression of anger – chiefly and importantly about the erosion of civil rights and apartheid in his native South Africa – I see him in the canon of art history. Time honoured traditions of mark-making and drawing evoke the spectres of David Bomberg, Egon Schiele, Max Beckmann, Cy Twombly, George Grosz, and even Master Rembrandt among others. Kentridge’s black and white drawings swoop around the darkened academy walls that have never looked so frightening and ominous. This is politics but it is first and foremost art. They are beautiful. They are skilful.
In both these shows it is left to us, the viewer, to grasp meaning. We look, we feel, we hear, we learn.
Jean Luc Godard, who died only three weeks ago, once observed:
People like to say to me; “what do you mean exactly?”
I answer them: “I mean, but not exactly.”